by Katlina Sommerberg
Content Warnings: body horror, cannibalism, machine gore, human gore, passing mention of sexual assault, character death, visceral description of depersonalization, PTSD allegory
“While you settle into your new self, join me for a bite?” the man with plastic-smooth skin asks. He is seated at the end of a cafeteria table painted to look like wood, and the only furniture in the dim room. His yellow eyes reflect the flickering lights.
“No.” My voice feels wrong, but sounds right, like listening to a recording of myself.
“Really? You’ll reconsider.” Shrugging, he sweeps his hand over the feast in front of him. “This feast is uniquely yours.” He offers a fork, points to a seat at the table.
Defiantly, I stand at the table’s opposite end. The light glares off the porcelain plates, off their gold trim, and I squint—no, I recalibrate—to compensate. Each one holds a single organ and nothing else. Yet these organs are wrong, they are too big to be poultry and too small to be pork.
Kidney in a bed of kidney beans. Roasted stomach. Deep fried lung. Baked bacon-wrapped liver. Ropes of sausage. Stir-fried uterus. Seared tongue. Deviled kidneys. Raw heart. Chopped and poached lung. The brain is the only missing organ.
“I’m not hungry.” And it is true. I have never been less hungry in my life.
He is wearing my father’s face, but it doesn’t quite stretch over his skull. The skin shivers. The bone underneath shrinks and worms around. In a second, I stare at the same head, but the face staring back morphs into my brother’s. My nephew’s? The thin lips twist into a perfect imitation of a familiar smile, but I cannot remember whose dimples he’s wearing.
He pulls the porcelain plate holding the heart towards himself.
I stare into where his eyes once were as he cuts into the organ. A hollowness gnaws in my chest.
“Do you remember what happened?” he asks.
“I do not remember anything.” I stare at the heart, but I cannot look away from his face or the organs covering the table. I realize I am simultaneously staring at all three.
“That’s a lie, and you know it.” Clicking his tongue, he spears a sliver of the heart on his fork. “You know what happened.” He waves the fork, heart and all, like a presentation pointer.
I reach for the heart, and one of my viewpoints shifts up away from him to the hopscotched ceiling. Disoriented but not deterred, I grasp the heart. The blood fills my hand with its rich copper taste, slipping between my metal fingers, and rouses a violent craving I can’t place.
He eats the heart fragment.
Rage floods my wires and synthetic nerves. My fist slams shut, enveloping the heart and squeezing it into clumps. Meat split-splatting the floor is like a drum beat in this quiet room.
My grip tightens on the remaining pulp, until it squelches through the gaps in my fingers. The odd texture soothes my wrath with its novelty. Blood fuzzes my vision; there is a camera on the back of my hand, and I see my face—inhuman, metallic, eyeless—through its perspective.
His yellow eyes re-form and stare at me. He doesn’t make eye contact; I don’t have eyes.
I don’t have a permanent face anymore. The synthetic skin and fake eyes change color for camouflage. The metal under the skin shifts to become whatever bone or cartilage look-alike features I need. I can become anyone, because I am no one.
“You are feasting on my body,” I say, adjusting my synthetic voice to sound feminine, close to my memory of my intact self. But I hate it more than the generic.
“It doesn’t do to waste good meat in this world.” He dabs his lips with a napkin.
“That meat was my body when I signed the contract for mentorship under Mongol’s CEO.” My voice sounds monotonic. Inside the confines of this metal shell, I am writhing and shrieking. “I won a spot in Mongol’s startup incubator. This isn’t what I signed up for.”
He smiles. Wider. Until his lips crack and dots of blood run down his teeth. “Someone didn’t read the fine print.” A high-pitched whistle drowns out his voice, yet I understand every word. “Did you really think a corporation would tolerate rebellious entrepreneurs in the hierarchy? All the same, you will have a use. Rest assured, the startup you nursed for two years will be integrated, and your products will transform the world. You will impact the world, but in a different capacity.”
He explains over and over—to my blank chrome face—how my cunning landed me this prestigious spot. I am effectively one of the CEO’s autonomous human-derived resources, intended to efficiently solve unique problems. But, no need to worry, I will not be personally assigned to topple my wife’s startup. It’s cutting into Mongol’s market share of network equipment. Another will be assigned that case. Isn’t that merciful?
I am not inside my head. I am somewhere behind myself, shrunk down to fade away under the metal layers of this body’s torso. My fist pounds the uterus, smashing the plate underneath into uncountable fragments. Except they’re not uncountable to me. I count them as my body moves like a dream, out of my control but following my every direction.
He continues for hours, alternating between ad-lib rambles and speeches ripped out of the standard HR onboarding drivel. I am a corporate drone. And, because of the costs sunk into providing me with my top-of-the-line cybernetics, I will need to meet my performance targets to remain in good standing and work off my debt.
Watching his lips form around each word, I become aware of my depersonalization. I study the cold running down every centimeter of my body. Then I understand. My brain is panicking. But my peripheral nervous system is gone. The physiological reaction to stress is gone. My mind races; I should be hyperventilating, but I am not, because this body never breathes.
I am not as I was born. Gleaming gasoline coats my delicate aluminum frame. In the sun, I am flashy, more ornament than monster. But in Neo Francisco’s under-city, I am but a cyborg with newer augments.
I shut myself down. Every sensor cuts out. In the sensory deprivation abyss, I am a faceless mind screaming with all my soul.
My sensors fire up. A video, received wirelessly by the username YELLOW, plays in my mind’s eye. I digest the video stream with cold apathy in my body and hideous continuous screams in my head. Mongol’s CEO congratulates me on a viral livestream, revealing the massive buyout he paid for my company. My face and my voice thank him, over and over and over. Deepfake.
I imagine slicing open his face and slipping inside his skin. I wish I could stretch his face over mine and take his power for my own. But my body betrays me, locking up whenever I chase the sadistic images.
The video fades out. I refresh my memory and open my visual sensors to the world. Something wearing a familiar face stares at me.
“Are you the one from before?” I ask.
“Does it matter?”
“It won’t in a year. Then you’ll be sitting at the table. In that way, we are interchangeable.”
I say nothing. Anything I think to say sounds wildly insubordinate, even to myself. Instead, I concentrate on my body and touch my shapeshifting mechanisms. It’s almost too easy. Transforming into a representation of my former self is as easy as blinking used to be. I try smiling. It doesn’t make me happy.
I watch my fists flex, open and closed. They look like my fingers, crooked in all the ways I remember. But they taste the air around them—iodine—and the illusion drops into the uncanny valley.
The other’s yellow eyes shine in the darkness; I adjust my light sensitivity, and the room becomes brighter than the aboveground during daylight hours. My GPS sensor can’t get a reading, but the high humidity and concrete walls imply we’re underground. Hulky rectangular units—reminding me of refrigerators from the 2010 model kitchen in San Francisco’s History of IOT Museum—fill the room in orderly lines, not unlike cloud computing warehouses. One sits behind me, open.
I think to ask Yellow the date, but my internal chronometer answers before I speak. It’s been two days since I first awoke in this robotic body, two weeks since my last memory as a human. I dig into my human memories, but static obscures every face, every voice, every detail.
“What are we?” I ask.
“The remnants of Mongol’s human obstacles. Clever, smart, innovative. Every corporate fixer was once an entrepreneur cutting into Mongol’s bottom line.” Yellow’s face morphs, the color dripping away until a sleek shiny helmet remains. “Scrappy. Above all, we are scrappy. How else can we fix, fix, fix?”
I step towards Yellow. With each motion, my control over this form slips. When I stand inches away from the helmet, we are identical, two naked machines dressed up in featureless anonymity. By default, faceless and skinless. The words I do not want to form in my mind, but my speakers say, “Fix. Fix. Fix.”
As I watch Yellow backslap the scientist tied to the chair in front of me, I realize I’m beginning to enjoy the senseless violence. Had I always been like this? I’d dissected bugs as a child. I’d picked the organs out of animal after animal while my lab partner puked next to me. I’d smashed a full beer bottle over a man’s head after he’d grabbed my friend’s ass, using her assault as an excuse.
Perhaps I do enjoy the violence. But I hate weaponizing my mind, even my sadism, for Mongol’s benefit. They made me. To use me. I am a butchered, nondescript reduction of who I used to be. Only my brain remains, hunkering behind my reactor core. The thing pretending to house my brain is still filled with sensors. It would be annoying to replace it—which has happened, once.
Yellow grabs the man’s face and demands his research; I snap back into mission mode. Inside PearCorp’s campus is the worst place to waste brainpower reconstructing my human memories.
“I can’t! I’ll be ruined if you take it,” the researcher says. He rubs his hands together, leaving nail indents in his palms. “They’ll never give me another high impact project. I’ll never get funding like this again! No. No!”
Yellow pulls out a handheld flamethrower, shaking its head. “Bad choice,” it says, pointing the muzzle at the man’s left arm. The mouth it created jerks into an impossibly wide smirk; then the flamethrower spits out gasoline.
I wince, mentally. But the machine body fails to react. Yellow’s finger stays on the trigger for a full two seconds.
The fire eats through the researcher’s cotton sleeve, devouring the skin before he can blink. His mouth, already open in shock, widens as his jaw stretches to the limit. He gasps, then belts out the most horrendous shriek I’ve ever heard. The scream reverberates around the lab. He’s still screaming when the flames stop.
“You really think PearCorp cares about you as an individual?” Yellow says. “You’ll be lucky if their insurance covers half the cost of your skin grafts. And the mental scars? Forget it, your corporate healthcare doesn’t include therapy.”
“It’s my research!”
“Funded by PearCorp.” Yellow glances over its shoulder to me, shaking its head. It makes circles around where an ear would’ve been. “You going to make me do this? It’s your eye that’s next.” It shoves the muzzle against the man’s forehead.
“Wait—” The researcher cuts himself off with a whimper.
I expect my stomach to lurch, but I’m thrilled instead. I turn away, but my near-360 vision keeps the burning head in frame. Yellow uses a split-second burst. He squeaks. Eye goop runs down his cheekbones. He’s shaking. Yellow’s laughing.
The researcher’s empty eye socket watches me. His hand trembles above his flashing console, flesh burned to crunchy black. He whimpers, the only sign he’s still alive. His unburned hand rises to his face, palming the liquified eye. His arm jerks, like he’s trying to put an eye back into its socket.
I take his hand in mine. His fingers squeeze mine for comfort, but I don’t mind, because his action palms the watery squish over my sensors. The taste is unique: smokey, surprisingly salty, but disappointingly bland.
“Now, now, now,” Yellow says to the researcher. “Don’t waste your time with that nonsense. Unlock your machine, please, and we’ll remember to call an ambulance after we leave.”
“Can he hear us?” I ask.
“I didn’t burn his ears, did I?” Yellow hisses.
The researcher gags and splutters. His working hand jerks to the console, and Yellow gently assists him in placing his fingers into the correct orientation for the unlocking mechanism. The man, so frightened, his fingers curl into a fist repeatedly. Each time, Yellow pries the fingers lose the same way a parent takes a hammer from their toddler’s twitchy hand.
“Why?” I ask. Showing mercy to a dying man burns against my nature.
“Why not? He cooperates. No need for further violence.”
I stew in my own mind at the remark, the arbitrary distinction impossible to comprehend. Torture should continue, uninterrupted, until death. Stopping in the middle is unsatisfying. And cruel. According to my facial recognition program, the disfigured man is no longer a human.
Yellow walks the researcher through his various login details, including all three types of two factor authentication (a unique password he memorized, a token keyed to his personal device, and biometrics mapped to his teeth). Once through all the authentication layers, Yellow saves a copy of the researcher’s data in his own cyborg body with a tap to the screen.
“Why let the fool suffer to live?” I ask.
“The next time we need a researcher’s cooperation, perhaps they will not be so stubborn.” Yellow shakes its helmet at me.
“He should be dead. That is fix, fix, fix.”
Yellow shakes its helmet again, the gleam glittering gold. “When you have your own independent assignment, then you can fix, fix, fix however you like. But, today, I am responsible for the project’s outcome.”
I tap the researcher’s device, absorbing the data into myself. Fingers twitching, I nearly mold my arm into a pistol and take the sniveling man out now. “There are human trials for cybernetics in PearCorp’s basement. Like us. No, worse than us.”
“It’s why we came here. To get the data.” Yellow’s patient voice pisses me off. “Then PearCorp will determine the appropriate response.”
“We should destroy the lab.”
“This is why I didn’t brief you about his research. I knew you would react like this.” Yellow shook its head and poked a finger where my nose would’ve been. “You’re reckless. And too independent. You should follow the mission’s parameters.”
“They’re making things like us.”
“We shouldn’t exist, let alone more of us. Let’s destroy the lab. It’s literally beneath our feet.”
Yellow’s speaker warbles again, but I’m not paying attention. I stomp a hole into the floor, crunching the fake wood and real metal alike. It takes three stomps until it’s twice the width of my body, and I jump in. My legs are already transmuting to a point; when I land, I crunch right through to the next level. Then the next, next, next.
Until I stomp into concrete, landing in a hole half a meter deep. Yellow yanks me up, into the spacious basement flooded by blue lights. Cyborg bodies in strange configurations hang off the ceiling, some dangling quietly, but most squirming on the hooks. The closest one’s hands twitch from fists to hatchets and back again in an endless cycle. I smell the electricity in the air; there’s charging stations and debugging terminals everywhere.
“Must be over fifty people down here during work hours,” Yellow says.
“Look at the debugging equipment. We’ve never had access to anything capable of modifying ourselves; if we don’t use it to liberate ourselves, we’re fools.”
“Don’t be stupid. You want to scramble your already scrambled brain?”
“I’m going to scramble the code shackling the real me. You should do the same.”
Reaching up, I yank one of the husks hanging off a curved hook. The hook rips straight up from its empty chest cavity to its neck; liquid metal and chromatic slivers rain down. The hardware in the lower torso survives, as I intended, without a scratch. I shove my convulsing fingers into the exposed ports, probing the sockets.
Once I identify the debug port, I replicate the socket type on the back of my own neck.
“This won’t work.” Yellow advances one step towards me. “PearCorp’s models are distinct from us.”
Sharply, I turn and approach one of the ten debug centers in the middle of the room. Each is the size of an old 1950’s television set, and this one gushes a spaghetti network of wires out of its ports. I test each plug by rolling it in my hand, feeling for compatibility with the socket. The first sets off a deafening alarm. The ninth is the right one.
I roll the plug around my palm. But no matter how hard I push it at myself, my hand pulls back, as though the plug and socket are magnets. And they are—my body’s a turncoat. I try again and again, each time with renewed ferocity.
“You think it’ll release you. That’s one of the safeguards. If you think your action will defy a safeguard or objective, you cannot execute the action.”
“I know.” Beneath all the safeguards and programmed constraints, I know I am still me, but I have to peel them off. “Plug it in me.”
“Why? You would brick yourself. Or, worse, glitch out and the handlers’ll ice you.” Yellow’s face melts down to a cartoonish sad cat head. “I would miss your company.”
“Those are acceptable risks.” I ignore the sentiment entirely—I don’t believe Yellow is genuine. “Plug it in.”
Yellow hesitates, its raised hand twitching. Lunging forward, it connects the cable to my neck before my traitorous body can guard against it. “If. You survive. Eliminate us all.”
Static muddles up my sensors, and my joints lock. Stiff as a board, I hunch over the display and keyboard. Yellow’s body reflects in the glass, and I watch as red lights flicker on one by one. The unfinished cyborgs fall from the ceiling, and a human security guard stands at the doorway. My hearing fades in and out, the crash of metal on metal fading into buzzing silence and crescendoing up to a ringing bedlam.
I focus on the code, searching and deleting any line remotely close to the safeguards. The static flickers, my vision’s color palette swaps on and off from grayscale to full spectrum. I watch Yellow gut machine after machine, but every third or forth takes a metal chunk off its shell. First a finger clangs to the ground. A piece of torso. Then an entire arm.
Once I erase the majority of the code, I pull the cable out.
Yellow stands on one leg, wielding nothing but half an arm trimmed down to a jagged edge. The human lies in pieces, scattered amongst machine gore. My color vision flicks from greyscale to full color, only briefly. Everything is muddled.
“Plug it—” Yellow says, but its voice dies with a screech.
I pull my arm out of Yellow’s back, ripping out cables. Metallic fragments clatter on the scrap littering the floor. The metal husk shivers as I yank the hole wider. But there is nothing but metal, no organic tissue at all. Nothing of Yellow to save, save, save.
Yellow’s face melts right off the frame, and I stare at the dead sensors beneath for an eternity lasting five seconds.
“I didn’t call for one of you,” the CEO says.
My helmet morphs into a replica of my former face. His jaw clenches. He folds himself into a ball in his foreboding executive chair, hands braced on the massive desk. When I relax, the face oozes off.
I don’t even know if I am real. There is so little of me left. My brain could be in a vat just as easily as this shell, and what would be the difference? Killing this man and taking his place won’t change my fate. But if I am Mongol’s CEO, then I maximize my control over this fever dream world.
He is surprised to see me. Why? Why is he surprised? The richest entrepreneur in the world, my supposed mentor, surprised to see me exact my revenge on his post-capitalistic soul? I have no face, no eyes, but he looks into my helmet anyway, looking for eyes and a mouth and facial features I once had. No more. My face is no more. Nothing but shimmering goop over a metal frame.
“I trusted you,” I say. The synthetic voice falls flat, even as my mind trembles with more emotion than I have ever felt in my life. The memories flash behind my eyes. I dreamed of his mentorship. I grinded for a decade to get to where I was, and he wiped the slate clean.
“I’m surprised you remember,” he says. His blue eyes narrow, and he bites his thumbnail’s white tip. His blonde hairline intrudes over his forehead, scattering over his skin like a time-lapse of kudzu taking over a garden. His face becomes a yellow button, crushed as thin as a pancake.
Rage, rage, rage dances in my thoughts and I use every drop of self-discipline to hold myself back. I want to gut him, rip out his entrails, but I understand he is like me. Like the other fixers, but, how? “Why reduce yourself to this inhuman state?” I hiss.
“Why have humans chased immortality for thousands of years?” he counters. Numerous holes pop in the button, forming a scarecrow smile.
Both of my arms morph into straight, fat blades. “It’s a fool’s quest.”
“That’s an interesting position, given your current immortality.” His fingers intertwine, and he leans forward on his desk. “Why don’t you run across the hall and replace the CFO? We could run this company together.”
He’s stalling, why is he stalling? Waiting for security. He knows we are not equals, despite the performative shapeshifting and brave talk. It’s a guess, but I live or die by instinct. I charge, crash through his desk and slide my arm-blades into his sparking mechanical bits.
I impale the fool until I break through his back. The diamond-sharp tip transmutes back to fingers, and I retract my mechanical limb, millimeter by millimeter. Inside his chest, I grasp his squishy brain. I rip it out.
He laughs, laughs, laughs as his body jerks, jerks, jerks.
I taste the gummy grey matter between my fingers, the acidic pseudo-blood running down my shell like raindrops. If I have a brain, would it taste this artificial? He is nothing but a chemical cocktail forcing a life on what should rot. Now he is dying without sensory input to mark the passage of time.
The brainless body shutters and glitches, shapeshifting into strange forms coated in fish scales and pig skin. I watch, fascinated, as I sit back in his chair and prop my feet on the desk’s broken remains.
When the security drones come in five seconds later, I’m wearing his face and his body and picking at his laptop’s fragments. “Clean the scrap up off the floor. And send in an IT guy with a replacement machine. This one’s fucked.”
Katlina Sommerberg is living xyr best queer life in Portland. Previously a security engineer, xe left the industry after working in cryptocurrency and defense contracting. Unfortunately, hacking in real life is always boring or unethical, with no in-between. Xe has quadrice been honorably mentioned in the Writers of the Future Contest. https://sommerbergssf.carrd.co/#